The first Symbol of the Month of 2020 – a little later than I planned but more to come….
There are many sailing vessels in cemeteries. Ships, boats and the occasional yacht, becalmed on headstones or monuments forever sailing on a marble or granite sea. Often they reveal the incumbent’s former occupation as on this fine example on the grave of Captain Edward Parry Nisbet in Brompton Cemetery. Note the cross formed by the mast which is one of the central symbols of Christianity. There’s also the magnificent and exuberant monument to Captain Wimble and his indomitable wife on the appropriately named Ship Path in West Norwood Cemetery.
But this little boat tied up and apparently moored at the base of a large cross is symbolic of a journey that has reached its final destination.
The monument is located within Brompton Cemetery and is a representation of the journey of life. This is a small sculpture of a rowing boat that has been carved to resemble a wooden one and there are seats inside but no oars. It could be interpreted as coming to the end of your life or journey and entering another life of eternity symbolised by the cross. In other words, the crossing to the ‘other world’ as Douglas Keister calls it. Also as www.stoneletters says:
‘…it’s a symbol of our last journey, it embodies the voyage of life, of coming full circle and taking us back to the waters of our beginning.’
However a boat can also be seen as an emblem of safety and refuge as it carries us over life’s often choppy seas and takes us home. In this context, another boat that springs to mind is Noah’s Ark. It protected and saved all that were on it and was a metaphor for the church as it weathered the storm against all odds. However, Keister also suggests that the shape of a boat can resemble that of a cradle or a womb which would again emphasise shelter and protection. It holds us secure above the chaos of life.
Boats and death are a central theme in many other religions and cultures in that they carry the souls of the dead to eternity. For example, King Arthur was transported by boat on death and, most famously, the Vikings people also used funerary boats. This was granted to important people of the tribe as they and their possessions would be sent out across the water in one after it had been set ablaze. A symbolic mimicking of the soul’s journey to Valhalla. Also in Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman who took the souls of the dead by boat into the Underworld by crossing the River of Woe, Acheron.
But boats and death also feature in literature, especially poetry and there is the famous quotation by F Scott Fitzgerald:
‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
‘Crossing the Bar’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson also features a sea voyage which will end in death,
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
There is also The Ship of Death by D H Lawrence amongst others.
I said earlier that a boat or ship is an important Christian symbol due to the mast forming a cross. Also, the Latin for ‘nave’ ,the central aisle of a church, means ‘ship’ and there are several Biblical references to boats and ships. After all, Christ told his disciples to “follow me and I will make you fishers of men”.
But let’s not forget that a boat or ship can also indicate a love of sailing and freedom.
Some of the letters on the epitaph beneath the boat and cross have worn away so I can only assume tha the name commemorated is Walter Ward M Cais but it seems incomplete. He died young at only 43 and his widow, Martha, married again and lived well into the 20th century. It must have been a message of comfort that Walter’s small boat was moored safely for eternity.
© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated
Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004